After months of speculation and even longer desperate hope, American on-demand video provider Netflix has finally launched its services in the UK. It faces an uphill struggle to gain a foothold on this side of the pond, facing off against the Amazon-owned LoveFilm (which also provides physical DVD, Blu-ray and game rentals), as well as on-demand TV and film services provided by Sky, BT and Virgin Media. And those are just the legal alternatives.
They've made a brave stab at it - apps have launched for Android and Apple devices, as well as all three current home games consoles. Their catalogue, guaranteed to grow quickly in these first few months, is already significantly better-stocked than LoveFilm's offering, which consists mostly of independent and older films.
A larger, high-quality selection of content is a strong opening gambit, although the service at-launch is not without its flaws. The interface on the Netflix website and the Xbox 360 app are both extremely poor, and although slightly better on the PS3 it's still very difficult to find content. You can search for something if you know you want to watch it, but there's no guarantee it'll be in their library yet anyway. Finding something new is almost impossible, as there's no way to drill down into categories, and although there's a "similar items" when you start watching something, you have to start watching something before that option pops up.
The PS3 at least lets you flip through the episodes in a series without having to start the first one, while the web and 360 interfaces only show that option once the show starts.
I'm not sure what they were thinking with the 360 app, though - it's a confusing vertical list of horizontal lists, presenting you with just cover images (which awkwardly expand into a screenshot when you hover the cursor over them for a second). It vaguely uses the same idea as the new "Metro" interface, but it's not consistent enough. The biggest problem is the inability to sort titles, and I'm not entirely sure what governs the order they're presented in. Presumably the date they were added to the service, but wouldn't name or the original release date make more sense?
And would a favourites/want-to-see list be out of the question? Something like LoveFilm's (or Netflix US' DVD rental) queue, that lets you add stuff you're interested in that can then be used to give you more recommendations, or just provide quick access to things you'd like to watch.
The lack of options within the apps is another stumbling block; initially, your video quality is set to stream the lowest bitrate version of the film, but there's no indication where to change this option or even that you can. You've got to go onto the website and update the streaming quality from there (along with any parental controls or language preferences); while it's good that all the account management stuff is in one place, does it really have to be in only one place?
Once I'd bumped up the streaming quality and found something to watch (The Usual Suspects), it actually worked really well. The film started playing in as-near-as-I-could-tell HD within a few seconds and stayed in HD the entire way through, with no skips or lag - a near-miracle on our internet connection, which sometimes struggles to buffer an entire YouTube video. I also watched the start of Battle Royale to check out something with subtitles, and was surprised to see they were using soft subs rather than the hard subs my original DVD version had. A couple of titles (Battle Royale and Avatar: The Last Airbender) started off streaming in quite poor, low-quality video, but after a minute or so they bumped up to at least standard definition and stayed there for the rest of the time I was watching them.
Overall it's a promising start, but I hope they take some time to make the experience of finding films easier. Right now, it's too hard to stumble across something new, but too much effort to search for something specific that might not be there anyway.
At this point I don't think I'll keep the service beyond the first free month, but I'm going to try and get my theoretical money out of it. Maybe it will change the way we watch films and TV, although since most of the stuff we watch is as-it-airs US TV, maybe not.